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Experiencing occasional anxiety is normal. However, if your feelings of anxiety are extreme, last for an extended period or interfere with your daily life, you may have an anxiety disorder. People with anxiety disorders frequently experience intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.
Although often used interchangeably, anxiety is not the same as fear. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat. At the same time, fear is an appropriate, present-oriented and short-lived response to an identifiable and specific threat.
Keep in mind that anxiety also is not interchangeable with stress. Both are emotional responses, but stress is generally caused by an external trigger (e.g., a work deadline, conflict or chronic illness). These terms are often confused since anxiety leads to similar symptoms.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 31% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes. There are several types of anxiety disorders, and having more than one simultaneously is possible. When excessive anxiousness lasts more than six months, it is then considered and treated as an anxiety disorder.
Here are some of the most common anxiety disorders:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) includes persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about activities or events that are often ordinary or routine. These stressful feelings can jump from topic to topic, occurring most days. GAD is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about various everyday problems for at least six months. Physical symptoms accompanying this condition include fatigue, headaches, irritability, nausea, frequent urination and hot flashes.
- Panic disorder involves repeated attacks of terror, known as panic attacks, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweating, dizziness and weakness. During these attacks, a person may flush or feel chilled, their hands may tingle or feel numb, and nausea or chest pain may occur. Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a feeling of impending doom or a fear of losing control. They can occur at any time, even during sleep. Some people who experience panic attacks become so fearful that they refuse to leave home. When the condition progresses this far, it is called agoraphobia—a fear of open spaces.
- Social anxiety disorder is diagnosed when individuals become overwhelmingly anxious and excessively self-conscious in everyday social situations. People with this phobia have an intense, persistent and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and doing things that will embarrass them. They may worry for days or even weeks before a dreaded situation. Many individuals with social phobia realize that their fear is unwarranted but are still unable to overcome it.
- A specific phobia is an intense and irrational fear of something that poses little or no threat, such as heights, escalators, dogs, spiders, closed-in places or water. Similar to social anxiety disorder, individuals understand these fears are irrational, but feel powerless to stop them. The causes of specific phobias are not well-understood, but symptoms usually appear in childhood or adolescence and continue into adulthood.
The causes of anxiety disorders aren’t fully understood. For example, life experiences can trigger anxiety disorders in people already prone to anxiety. Inherited traits may increase a person’s chance of developing an anxiety disorder or anxiety could result from a medical condition that needs treatment. The APA notes that women are more likely to experience anxiety disorders than men.
In general, anxiety disorders are treated with medication, therapy or both. Before treatment begins, a doctor must conduct a careful diagnostic evaluation to determine whether an anxiety disorder or a physical problem causes a person’s symptoms. Sometimes alcoholism, depression or other coexisting conditions strongly affect an individual, and treating their anxiety disorder must wait until those conditions are controlled. Those with anxiety disorders usually try several different treatments or combinations of treatments before finding the one that works for them.
Anxiety looks and feels different for everyone, so it’s important to understand how anxiety can present itself. Common symptoms of anxiety include the following:
- Anxious thoughts that are difficult to control
- Sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Trouble concentrating
- Unexplained aches and pains
Anxiety may not go away on its own and can worsen if left untreated. Many people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, and, fortunately, they are very treatable. If you feel like you’re worrying too much and these feelings are interfering with your work, relationships or other aspects of your life, contact your doctor or a mental health professional.